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"Bad Times" Aren't Always All Bad – These Two Ideas for "Improving the Parks" Fizzled

Crater Lake

A tunnel to reach Crater Lake? It was once considered. NPS photo.

In the early 1900s, there were plenty of ideas for ways the new agency called the National Park Service could "improve" the parks. Here are a couple whose time never came, perhaps in part due to the "bad times" during World War I and the Great Depression.

The administrative history for Crater Lake National Park includes the following information. If nothing else, this tale proves that visits to parks by "dignitaries" are not always a plus!

In August 1915 William Jennings Bryan, who had resigned recently as Secretary of State, visited Crater Lake while on a western vacation. After spending the night in the recently completed lodge, he and his wife, accompanied by Superintendent Steel and several park rangers, walked down to the lake for a launch trip.

The taxing climb back up to the rim led to Bryan's notorious proposal for construction of "a tunnel just above the lake level, through the rim to a connecting road." He proposed the tunnel so that visitors could reach the lake "without the laborious one thousand feet or more steep descent and climb over a slippery and dangerous trail" which could "only be made a few months of the year and is almost impossible for old people."

Superintendent Steel took up the campaign for a tunnel to the lake, and formally requested $1,000 in 1916 to conduct surveys for a tunnel. The idea fizzled; perhaps the distraction of World War I helped lay this idea to rest.

A few years later, up the road at Mount Rainier National Park, a different type of access was proposed. Again, the information comes courtesy of the park's administrative history:

Mount Rainier's real potential as a winter sports center lay in getting people to Paradise. Longmire experienced frequent rain and above-freezing temperatures during the winter, while Paradise's extra elevation assured it of much better snow conditions. With this in mind, the RNPC's [Ranier National Park Company] T.H. Martin in 1924 proposed an aerial tramway from the Nisqually road bridge up the mountainside to Paradise.

It would be purely functional, an alternative to the road during the three-quarters of the year when the road was closed. Superintendent Tomlinson forwarded this proposal to [NPS Director] Mather with the comment that the tramway would make Paradise available for winter use and therefore deserved further study.

The tramway proposal went no further for three and a half years, or until January 1928. Then Martin tried to link the tramway development to the construction of a second hotel, Paradise Lodge, at Paradise. "It is our definite plan to maintain the new hotel on an all year basis," Martin wrote, "and to do this it will, of course, be necessary to have some sort of comfortable and practicable method of transportation to Paradise Valley throughout the winter."

RNPC President H.A. Rhodes assured Mather that the tramway would not be promoted as a novelty or "Coney Island type of amusement." The RNPC held that the only alternative to a tramway was for the NPS to keep the road open all winter—at an estimated cost of $100,000 per year. Of course, another alternative was to operate the new hotel on a seasonal basis just like the Paradise Inn, but NPS officials never broached this possibility with the RNPC out of concern that the hotel would not be built. NPS officials did not endorse the RNPC's premise that the expansion of Paradise facilities required that the area have a winter tourist season, but they did not take issue with it either.

The tramway proposal stirred opposition in the Park Service. Chief Landscape Engineer Thomas C. Vint observed that the tramway would mar one of the most spectacular roadside views in the park--the view of the Nisqually Glacier from the Glacier Bridge. Others worried that it would be precedent-setting, opening the door for tramways to be built to the tops of peaks in other national parks.

The fact that many such tramways could be found in the Alps was no consolation to them; a review of these European engineering works indicated that they were built without much regard for scenic preservation. Still another concern was that local organizations including The Mountaineers and the Rainier National Park Advisory Board might oppose the project.

Mather gave this issue his close attention, consulting not only his own landscape architects, but also the National Commission of Fine Arts in New York City. In August 1928, he gave the project his tentative approval, explaining his decision to Superintendent Tomlinson thus:

"This is not a proposition having in view a spectacular trip, nor to make a scenic point in a park available at greater convenience to the traveling public, such as the proposed tramway to the top of Mount Hood contemplated or the existing cograil to the top of Pikes Peak presents, but an arrangement whereby the future hotel will be made accessible during the winter months for winter sports and travel from the most readily accessible point on the road. It therefore cannot be pointed to as a precedent by any other park operators, and any other such applications would have to be passed on their merits."

The tramway proposal fizzled one year later, in the summer of 1929. The NPS remained tentatively supportive to the end, and the decision not to go forward appears to have rested with the RNPC rather than the NPS and to have been based on economics rather than aesthetics. After completing the new Paradise Lodge in 1928, the RNPC was in a weak financial condition. As discussed below, company officials were trying diligently to work out a plan with the major Pacific Northwest railroads to refinance the company. This circumstance seems to have been the crucial one in causing the tramway proposal to fizzle.

Finances certainly didn't improve later in 1929, and the Great Depression didn't improve prospects for the hotel—or the tramway.

There are other examples of ways a bad economy has directly benefited parks. In a story on the Traveler last year, I asked, "Did the Great Depression Save the Yorktown Battlefield?"

I don't know of anyone who is happy about the current economic situation or similar situations in the past, but perhaps there's occasionally a bright side to bad times... at least for those who prefer to err on the side of preserving parks.


Thanks for the interesting piece, Jim. I'd never heard of the Crater Lake tunnel idea before. These administrative histories found on most unit's websites make fascinating reading. I would encourage anyone passionate about their parks to check them out.

Long time employees in the Maintenance Division at Rainier say it is very expensive to keep the road to Paradise plowed during the severe winters, but necessary because Glacier Bridge cannot bear the snowload. That, plus potential damage to the historic Paradise Inn and other infrastructure from the tremendous annual snowfall, make clearing the road daily the cheapest option. Undoubtedly a tram would have had high maintenance costs as well, and probably would not have been able to operate in the frequent strong winds.

Tramways aren't always successful, either. One was eventually built at Mt Hood, going from the town of Government Camp up to the famous Timberline Lodge. It was a low budget setup, and used old city buses suspended from a cable as tram cars (really!) It was also a failure, only lasting a couple of years. You can find a couple of old photos of this rather odd contraption at Scroll down to the end of the page.

Jess -

Thanks for the interesting comment.

I'd definitely agree that a tramway using old city buses suspended from a cable qualifies as "low budget"!

Steel also wanted to build an elevator from the Lodge to the lake shore and the NPS director at the time, Horace Albright, called Steel's, within-the-rim, road idea, "chimerical." No doubt, Steel was feeling his oats after having attained money from Congress for the first survey project of a rim road (in 1907) at Crater Lake and then money for construction of the first rim road.

Another notion, just as nonsensical, was pushed by Congressman Charles Porter, of Oregon, for an aerial gondola.....from the rim to Wizard Island in 1959.

Thanks so much Jim. Good job.

rob mutch
Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography

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